The Coolest Place on Earth!

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2). DISTRICT CENTRE, JANAKPURI.

My oldest memory of the District Centre, a.k.a Janak Place, was the lines of workers I’d see, while rushing to catch my school bus every morning. Whether it was the chilling winds of winter or the dreaded summer heat, the workers moved like clock-work, carrying water bottles under their arms, determined to perform their morning bowel duties anywhere they found a spot in the vast white complex that stood abandoned, down the road from our house. It was no wonder then that the complex was referred to as ‘Potty Centre’, which had a few offices at the back, but lay invisible to our peripheral vision for a long time.

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District Centre.

And then came McDonald’s! Before this, pizzas and burgers were still things we only dreamed of, unless an aunt or uncle visited from abroad and these dreams actually came alive. To have a McDonald’s open right next door became the second greatest thing to being alive. The Delhi Development Authority took over and cleaned up the ‘poopy’ mess, the buildings re-painted, the giant, yellow and red ‘M’ logo beckoning every passerby and suddenly, everyone flocked to fancy Janak Place, named after King Janak from the Ramayan, as if all roads led only there. ‘Opposite District Centre’ became THE landmark to my house and I beamed with pride when the kids at school recognised ‘the cool, new place’ in Janakpuri! The Vanilla McSwirl was the greatest attraction, not for its taste, but because it cost 5 bucks and parents didn’t mind buying a scoop to stop their whiny kids from ruining their evenings out. Young school boys and girls sat at McDonald’s for hours and hours over a single burger, blushing and batting their eyelids at each other, too nervous to speak. It was a known thing then, that if a boy ever asked you meet him at McDonald’s, it was absolutely, one hundred percent, a date.

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The death and re-birth of McDonald’s.

The people of Janakpuri, and beyond, took to Janak Place like ants take to food or Apple fans take to the latest I-phone. It didn’t take very long for a Barista to open, followed by Music Land and Wordsworth. Pocket money, Birthday money. Diwali money, Christmas money, ANY money was locked away till you had enough to purchase the latest CD’s or the newest Harry Potter, factors that determined your existence on Earth and friendships at school. You could beg, borrow or steal, but at the end of the day, if someone had read a book before you, rest assured, you’d have to kill yourself to protect yourself from spoilers. There was a new restaurant every corner you turned and the food options blew our little minds! Toy-sellers Gopal Prasad Gupta and Rakesh Suri set up shop on opposite sides of McDonalds, spots they hold even today, 15 years later.

A Crafts Bazaar opened up in the centre of the complex, a local version of Dilli Haat and cheaper and while women shopped for hours, the kids were promptly given 100 rupees to play 10 games of their choice at the gaming arcade, with its colourful, electric mini cars and air-hockey tables. Janak Place soon got its first movie hall in 2004 and metro stations on either end and the world was never the same again.

I remember being floored by Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s very own ‘Bonny and Clyde’ and the first movie I watched at Satyam, planning to use similar tactics to take over the world with my brother. Things were moving fast and property rates in Janakpuri sky-rocketed over-night. This was a good time in the history of the locality.

The fantasy that was Janak Place quickly became a horror when it came into the spotlight due to a number of successful suicides, quickly earning the name ‘Suicide Towers’. Rakesh Suri saw four people die in front of him, young boys and girls who climbed to the 6th or 7th floor and jumped off. He remembers trying to save a girl who had jumped off the second floor, with not an injury on her, but died anyway. District Centre was in the news for all the wrong reasons, with people considering it haunted because of the several deaths that took place in a short time. Grills were installed on every floor with immediate effect, but the impact lasted for a couple of years, until the suicides were altogether forgotten. By this time, Janak Place was teeming with street children and their families, who were addicted to sniffing glue and begged for a toke of Korex correction glue over money. If things weren’t looking good, they became worse when Pacific Mall opened in Subhash Nagar, drawing all the crowds and leaving Janak Place an abandoned mess.

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Wordsworth, with it’s shutters down.

In my head, Janak Place is a fighter. When you google it, you’re faced with a ton of bad reviews about the place and I don’t blame the people. The place is a wasteland. Wordsworth, the book shop, was the first to go because, sadly, people don’t read enough and especially not today, when you have access to information and the latest e-books on your phone or computer. This was followed by Music Land, when the owners realised that the latest cassettes and CD’s weren’t flying off shelves anymore. The restaurants are mostly empty owing to food ordering apps. Gopal and Rakesh have resorted to setting up their mats, laden with toys, only in the evening and earn about 150-200 rupees a day. Ambika Pillai took her salon and ran, what seems like, a million years ago. McDonalds was in the midst of a massive lawsuit and had shut its doors on everyone for a while. But, with all of this backlash, the place still sees enough families on a Sunday afternoon, their little kids crowding the chocolate fountain stall or the tinier one’s in their remote operated mini-cars, banging into people on purpose. The most recent addition to the food stalls was the Kolkata puchka guy whose puchka game is on point, but dangerous if you’re brave enough to exceed two plates.

The goods at the Craft Bazaar are still beautiful and cheap, defeating the branded stores that are still holding on, lining the higher floors. The complex still houses a lot of smaller gadget repair shops, Xerox and printing places and trinket shops, tucked away at the back, hidden in plain sight. And you will still find the scores of couples, crouched beside one another on rusting benches, planning their futures. To everyone who lives or has ever lived in Janakpuri, though, District Centre a.k.a Janak Place, its tall, white towers covered in grime, will always be the “coolest place on Earth”.

AMMA

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It wasn’t until her death in 2011 that we realised Amma was mortal. She was just as human as the rest of us, waiting for her turn to show up at the gates of heaven and demand to see her loved ones.

She was hired the week I was born, when my grandfather finally gave into my mother’s persistent pleas that she needed a little help running the house, with a new baby in tow. And so, Amma came to work the very next day, taking charge of the household and becoming a part of our lives for 23 years.

Born Ram Devi, Amma was always called Amma. She seemed like the kind of person who had been old all her life, her face weathered with time and the name just stuck. It wasn’t just us, though. Every house down the street, where she worked, knew her as Amma.  This was the time when house-maids were part of a hierarchical system and since Amma was the oldest and had come to B-Block Janakpuri first, she got to pick the houses she wanted and everyone else had to fight for the left-overs. So, the time she began working for us, she was also working ten other houses in the neighbourhood, hopping from one to the next till she took the bus home in the evening.

Amma had lost her husband very early in life, leaving her with three sons and not a penny in hand. She barely had time to grieve and got to work immediately, scouring housing colonies in Uttam Nagar near Kali Basti where she lived, marketing her skills door to door, even begging for work. She had a good reputation as far as her work was concerned, which earned her more houses in the area and soon, one of her sons was graduating from school. This was one of the happiest moments of her life, but it was short-lived. The boy died in a road accident, which should have knocked her down emotionally, like when children die before parents, but not her. Amma was back at work the next day, striving to do better with her remaining kids. So, she left Uttam Nagar and decided to hit Janakpuri, an upcoming locality in the 80s and took over 3/4th’s of our block.

Amma (2010)

Amma’s voice fluctuated between a shrill croak and a low, gurgling rumble that could both scare the living day-lights out of us. Because of her small, skinny frame, we’d miss her comings and goings and sometimes, she’d creep up behind us, when we were engrossed in a book or mugging a lesson, her evening tea in hand and begin humming a tune, something that always made us jump and fall off our chair in shock. This was often amusing to her and she’d laugh out loud, clapping her hands, her toothless mouth in its fullest glory. I can still hear the ring of her laughter at the back of my mind somewhere.

Draped in her pink or purple floral saree, she’d trudge to work every day without fail. Her younger sons were married and she entrusted the care of the house to their wives. She had never wanted her daughters-in-law to work, not unless they were faced with challenging circumstances and she made sure of it. All she needed was a hot cup of tea every morning before she set off to work and a meal when she returned.

Every time Amma saw good days, they were inadvertently followed by bad days. By the time I was on my way out of school, she had developed a cataract in her eye, the milky glaze keeping her from performing the simplest tasks. That year, families that had employed her for years and years, gave up on her and she lost a lot of jobs all at once. Her family, as a result, gave her trouble because suddenly she wasn’t earning as much money and was, therefore, “useless”. Those days, Amma came to work either angry or sad. She’d sometimes break down while discussing her problems with my mother or reprimand her imaginary sons in our kitchen while washing the utensils. She was afraid she’d lose all her work and be forced to sit at home and deal with them all day. But, we weren’t done with Amma yet. Yes, she wasn’t as good with work anymore, unable to see food stains on plates, her swabbing in patches across the floor and she couldn’t hear properly either. Her hilarious exchanges with my deaf grandfather would result in them screaming at each other but in vain, with the rest of us screaming louder to get through to both of them. But, in any case, we weren’t ready to let go of her.

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I saw her less and less when I went to college, but when I did, she’d greet me with so much love and excitement. She was older now, reduced to a shadow of her former self, a shadow that sat in odd corners and talked to herself in broken, incomprehensible grunts and murmurs. You could watch her endlessly without her realising it because she had lost about 80% of her vision by then. The only thing she made clear was that she was prepared to die and that was that. Despite the eye operations, the cataract kept coming back until she was done trying to fix it. It was only when she was hit by a car crossing the road that she finally realised she had to stop. My father asked her to stay put at home and promised to pay her whatever we could afford (then) as a monthly stipend. She was supposed to come back the following month to collect her salary, but she never made it. Amma died in 2011, shortly after my grandfather and one part of the house, which they usually occupied, each of them lost in their own heads, fell incredibly silent. You can still sometimes hear their screechy banter, if you sit still and listen.

Amma will always hold a special place in our hearts, where reside all the loved one’s we’ve lost over the years. Our Amma.

UNREMARKABLY, REMARKABLE.

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1). COMMUNITY CENTRE, JANAKPURI

This may seem like one of the most unremarkable places on the map of Delhi and in some way, it is. It isn’t steeped in the rich history that the older parts of Delhi are and neither does it have the unique crumbling architecture that takes you back in time. But, for me and the thousands living in Janakpuri (West Delhi), the Community Centre has always been our hub. It was where ALL the banks known to Indian’s were stationed; where our grandparents stood in long lines to update their passbooks, with us in tow. Of course, there had to be incentives – chaat or candy floss or ice cream – to have us stand with them so long! The square was also home to bustling tea shops, lunch stalls, ONE stationery shop that thrilled me beyond measure, the dry-cleaners (who, for a long time, charged for dry-cleaning but conducted regular washes), ROOP-RANG which sold colourful soaps and shampoos and the big pharmacy run by a Sikh gentleman and his two sons.

Bank work was and always has been incredibly boring to me. As an adult, entering a bank still gives me a dull displeasure in my stomach, something I have to fight vehemently because I can’t whine about handling the money I earn (Ugh). The only thing capable of motivating me to embark on this journey is the Satya Prakash chaat stall that has existed and stood in the same place ever since I was a toddler. Managed by different men over the years, I am confident the taste has remained unchanged. I have been so in love with his gol-gappas that I distinctly remember telling my mother in my teens that I was going to marry the owner and spend the rest of my life churning out (and devouring) his exciting treats. This was the only life goal I was actually serious about till I moved for college, my love for gol-gappas was replaced by my love for beer.

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Satya Prakash corner at it’s busiest!

The second place that I loved visiting as a child was the stationery shop managed by a man with a hearing and speech impairment. Apart from items of academic importance, his shop also included greeting cards, shiny, crazy balls (yes, they were called that) and slam books that were a mighty rage back then. He also had an endless supply of Hero fountain pens that broke often and had to be replaced every month and scented erasers in all shapes and sizes. People were often impatient with him, displeased at his disability, but my mother’s big-eyed, angry looks would shut them up and put them in their place. As a result, he was always eager at our arrival and we knew him as the teddy bear like, nameless man with a giant smile on his, otherwise sad face. I still sometimes stand in front of his crumbling shop, his items faded and less shiny, an abysmal, brown discolouration on the walls and I watch him sitting in the corner of his forgotten shop. He stopped bothering about the hordes of customers flocking towards the brand-new stationery shop a long time ago. I buy a pen or a postcard for old time’s sake but I know he’s forgotten me and I’m okay with that. The shop and him stand frozen in the frenzy of development and competition in Janakpuri.

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The Photo studio and the stationery shop (left to right)

The Community Centre is presently steeped in dualities, juxtaposing the old with the new, the colourful hues of modernity with the aged, sepia toned look I mentioned before. There’s a huge, new café in the centre of the square, along which are numerous tandoori stalls that have stood the test of time, producing a variety of tikkas to the drinking public (mostly men after 8 P.M.) sitting in their fancy cars, a stream of loud music blaring from each of them. It’s what the people are used to versus the options they have been presented with and I have come to the firm understanding that people are only momentarily excited by new spaces, but immediately lapse into their old ways when bored. This is the case with Janakpuri and the people residing here. It’s no wonder then that people visit the numerous malls coming up in every nook and corner but also prefer their local, grimy food stalls to the plated delights offered in air-conditioned restaurants. I always find the tea stalls brimming with people, loudly conversing with each other, as opposed to the well-lit but often-empty restaurants that have taken over the area.

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Pishori’s Chicken Corner!

I know all these folks and don’t know them at all. Pishori, the chicken tikka man, recently handed over the responsibility of his stall to his son, once a puny little sardar, who is now taller and bigger built. They always recognize my mother’s voice and broken Hindi, sending the orders directly home without having to note down the address. Needless to say, we always get the soft, succulent chicken pieces, the pick of the lot! The Sobti’s of Sobti Medicos are an energetic bunch, with a vast knowledge of things beyond medicine and occasionally found reprimanding the odd Benadryl addict about his ways. There’s the lady who sells purses and pouches opposite the ATM, who spends more time gossiping with her customers than actually selling her goods. The Fujifilm shop that is perpetually closed and obviously of no use anymore. I tried my luck with them last month, calling and asking if they’d have old film rolls to spare and was laughed at and told to go digital already! The single, thriving liquor shop which has now multiplied into several of them, placed on all four sides of the square, teeming with alcohol enthusiasts (drunks). The chole-kulche stall run by Ram Niwas, who is my mother’s favourite person to this day! And the chai-wala, whose stall I visited earlier today and munched on matri’s with tea with my Ma and I realised that, come what may, Community Centre will always stand out in my memories for not changing like the rest of the city did.